Not long ago, after a Fraser Institute dinner at a Calgary hotel, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach strolled into the bar to find Rod Love, Ralph Klein’s one-time chief of staff, huddled with some friends drinking. “Is this the conspiracy table?” Stelmach, grinning broadly, asked the group. The gallows humour got a laugh. Still, there’s truth in jest. Love and one of his drinking buddies that night, Alan Hallman, a one-time campaign manager to Klein, had been rumoured to back a political challenger who could soon sweep Stelmach aside.
For weeks, the Tories’ annual general meeting in Red Deer, with its mandatory Nov. 7 leadership review, has promised to be good theatre, equal parts fun and intrigue (Duck Soup meets CPAC). Ordinarily a routine feature of party governance, this vote, wherein 1,000 delegates cast secret ballots for or against a leadership race, is now important business. Stelmach could go, and everywhere observers have delighted in identifying pretenders in the shadows—former leadership hopefuls Jim Dinning and Ted Morton, Calgary entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den panellist Brett Wilson, even federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice.
None of it is really credible. Still, the forces arrayed against Stelmach are many. One poll last month found PC support had collapsed to 34 per cent of decided voters from 64 per cent in early 2007. More than six out of 10 believe Stelmach has moved the province in the wrong direction. Most controversial have been his adjustments to oil and gas royalties, his handling of health care and a $6.9-billion deficit. At bottom, though, Stelmach is seen—especially among Calgarians—to have presided over the loss of the Alberta Advantage, that mix of low taxes and abundant opportunity that marked Klein’s reign.
That same poll, meanwhile, put voter support for the Wildrose Alliance, a new right-of-centre party, at 22 per cent, surpassing the Alberta Liberals. The party stole a Calgary by-election from the Tories in September and has since elected the talented Danielle Smith as leader. Stelmach has now grown so weak that open dissent within his party is no longer rare. Klein has said he must get at least 70 per cent of the vote to stay on. “I want enough Tories to vote against his leadership to force a leadership convention,” Hallman, an influential Tory activist and lobbyist, told a columnist last month.
He could get his wish. Love is expected as a delegate on Nov. 7, thanks to an odd personal intervention by Stelmach, who ignored rumours of his backroom meddling and named him a delegate after that night at the Hyatt. Stelmach has no way of knowing how he’ll vote. “I wouldn’t tell my wife,” says Love, though he dismisses the notion he is at the centre of a conspiracy. Also voting is MLA Guy Boutilier, made a delegate by the Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo riding association even though Stelmach ejected him from caucus when he persisted in agitating for a new Fort McMurray long-term care facility. Boutilier has now become a martyr to the cause of deposing Stelmach and his solipsistic handlers. “If you represent your constituents, you’ll just be ‘boutiliered,’ ” he says. “It’s not often one gets to go from a noun to a verb.”
Bonnyville Mayor Ernie Isley, a former cabinet minister, also won’t say how he’ll vote. Though he was one of several prominent Tories, both provincial and federal, to show up at the Wildrose’s leadership convention as a member, Isley retains delegate status as a one-time MLA. A ballot for Stelmach would be good for the Wildrose, he says—Stelmach would be the perfect opponent for Smith—but he adds that a new leader would be good for Alberta. Such shiftiness, for some, calls the validity of the leadership vote as a whole into question. “How many Wildrose guys are going to go and prop Stelmach up?” asks one Tory.
Whatever its outcome, the review likely won’t change Stelmach’s immediate future; recent declarations by prominent Tories like Peter Lougheed, Dinning and Morton suggest he’ll do fine. Rather, the vote will decide along which of its fault lines the party will split. Stelmach’s ascendancy has always been less about ideas—a vision for the province—than the desire of a certain corner of rural northern Alberta to run things awhile. A strong Stelmach vote will petrify Calgary’s distrust of the Tories; a weak showing will trigger more infighting, particularly if Stelmach defies the numbers to stay on.
In all this, some discern a winning slogan. Who will unite Alberta? “What’s disappointing to me is to see us pit Calgary against Edmonton, rural against urban,” says Wilson, one of those outliers long rumoured to harbour leadership aspirations. Is that bunk? “I won’t talk about it until there’s a decision made by the party,” says Wilson. And so Alberta waits.